Review: From Here to There by Alec Soth


Book Reviews, Photobooks


The first thing that struck me about From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America was the cover. That’s a great cover. You probably can’t see it very well, but it is filled with all this information (or maybe rather “information”) about the contents (for example, “[page] 177 - Learn how to repel women” or “[page] 137 - caves: Buy or rent?”). You don’t see such covers very often on photobooks, the majority of which, as I noted ad nauseam before, tend to be rather conservative affairs. Needless to say, to talk about the cover is a bad way to start a photobook review, but bear with me, hopefully we’ll be getting somewhere. (more)

It didn’t take me long to remember what the cover of the book reminded me off, namely the cover of another book (we’re getting more original by the minute here!), John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. Granted, there are some superficial differences, but you get the idea. If you think you don’t know who John Hodgman is, you are probably wrong. Even I know who he is even though there’s only “basic” cable in this household: Hodgman plays the “PC” in Apple’s Get a MAC TV ads, a perpetually befuddled, yet ultimately lovable character. “PC” always gets bested by the smug, hipsterish “MAC,” who tends to confuse a presumed entitlement of being cool with the actual thing, namely being cool (it’s likely if you have a strong opinion about the entirely superfluous MAC-vs-PC debate you might not be able to see it that way).

Whether bringing this up makes any sense I don’t know. I’m throwing it out there, hoping someone will bite: Might not From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America have something to do with this? It is, after all, not very hard not to take the “MAC” character for a stand-in of the art world, and I’d write more about this if a) this subject matter wasn’t so trite and if b) irony wasn’t part of that stale “MAC” man’s shtick. Oh, and c) ultimately, that character really only comes across as someone whose light bulb is running off a single, utterly depleted AA battery.

In any case, as much as analogies always carry the risk of people taking them too seriously or too literally or not even getting them at all (or any combination of those three), to see part of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America as some sort of photo art world equivalent of the core values of the John Hodgman “PC” character is not such a stretch. In fact, there are hints left and right.

Mind you, I’m not talking about Soth’s photography itself here.

I suppose I shouldn’t be writing this review on the internet, the place where anything you write can and will be reduced to the one snippet that seems to say something and that then will be taken against you. I’m not saying that Alec Soth is John Hodgman. But given I got started with drawing an analogy between the core values of John Hodgman’s fictional character and some of the contents in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America I might as well take the ball and run with it. See, here’s the thing, once you peel away the “PC” character’s befuddled layer you get someone who doesn’t believe in appearances, who knows that some things won’t work in simple - “cool” - ways.

Let’s spell some things out a bit more. As a photo-world example, most photographers - successful or not - think that the only way to have any sort of photo career is to move to New York City. Not so Soth. Hailing from Minnesota, that’s where he still lives. Which, as an aside, must make the Walker Art Center’s show - the basis of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America - all the more important for him: A major institution honouring a native son.

Of course, not living in New York City might strike you as just some minor detail (and many other well known photographers also don’t live there), but add up all the other minor details that you can find throughout the book, and a pattern emerges. In fact, the pattern seems to become more and more obvious the closer the photography gets to the book’s publication time. It is never more apparent than in the images from Soth’s most recent body of work, entitled “Broken Manual” (apart from the bits contained in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America still unpublished in book form at the time of this writing). The extended conversation between the artist and Bartholomew Ryan, which is also contained in the book, seems to support my theory.

Alec Soth certainly isn’t chasing after the kind of “cool” the “MAC” guy seems to possess. That conversation’s title is “Dismantling My Career,” and From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America does just that, except it does it in such a way that’s not all that obvious whether or not there is something being dismantled here. After all, the artist is a very good friend of the old herring who might or might not be red.

As is this writer.

Regardless, with one exception (I’m a cat person, so I’m not missing it) From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America contains an overview of Soth’s photography, going back as far as the early 1990s, and arriving pretty much where we are today. I’m sure a lot of people will be excited to see pre-Mississippi work, done in b/w, and the other new project (besides “Broken Manual”), “Single Goth Seeks Same” is sure to be a thrill, too. In a longish essay, Siri Engberg presents the history, the evolution of the work and thinking behind the work. In addition, there are essays by other writers (incl. Geoff Dyer), there is the aforementioned interview, plus selected samples from Soth’s first - and then abandoned - blog. Oh, and you get a little booklet entitled “The Loneliest Man in Missouri,” in a little pouch at the very end of the book.

I do feel that despite having seen the “Broken Manual” images in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, and even though I had a look at the actual book a couple of weeks ago, I’m in no situation to write about that work, or to write about how it all fits in with the earlier work. Having read the conversation before - without knowing any of the new pictures - I thought that it left a lot more question that it answered, and I don’t think From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America changed my mind.

I find this most welcome, because just like I’m not looking for answers in photography itself, I don’t necessarily look for them elsewhere, either. I’m happy to get something that makes me think, that maybe makes me change my mind, something that engages me, and if anything that’s what Alec Soth’s photography does.

We’re living in a world where everything has to make perfect sense, where simple answers, preferably posed in such a way that they provide comfort for our binary world, are what we are looking for. The only problem is that life simply doesn’t work that way. Life itself is considerably more complex, and that means the lives of artists and their output are, too. That’s something we have to accept and maybe struggle with. From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America makes it clear that it’s not just our struggle; first and foremost it’s the artist’s.

It’s slightly stupid to suggest a different title, but I do think that something like “From Here to… Where?” would really capture its essence (internet disclaimer: this is not a facetious comment).

I want to add this: I’m impressed by the way the book is put together. It just works, both as an object itself (it’s not one of those oversized, gratuitous retrospective books) and the way it’s put together.

From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, photography by Alec Soth, essays by Siri Engberg, Britt Salvesen, Barry Schwabsky, Geoff Dyer, August Kleinzahler, 288 pages, Walker Art Center, 2010 (there also is going to be a Hatje Cantz version)